During a 2012 trip to Japan, Eric Wedge gives tips to a young player in Ishinomaki, which was hard hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Credit: Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest
PEORIA, AZ — Our Seattle Mariners are playing well in Peoria this spring training and, for the first time in several years, are showing signs of being at least a .500 team in the regular season beginning in a month.
They could do much better than that, in fact, and get to the American League playoffs as the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles did unexpectedly in 2012. This is my 13th consecutive spring training in Peoria and I feel better about this team than any since their glory days a decade ago.
First, though, some general impressions after observing workouts in the team's first week.
The spirit and intensity are good. Manager Eric Wedge and his coaching staff use positive reinforcement and the players respond. There are 61 roster and non-roster players in the major-league camp. Some will be sent to the minors, traded, or released within the next month. But, as a group, they are deep and capable. The depth gives them flexibility if and when a key player might be injured. (None has been so far.)
Even now that exhibition games have begun, I focus on morning workouts at the Peoria complex. That is where Wedge and his coaches focus as well. Hitting, pitching, base running, and fielding drills give you a better idea of each player's approach and development than a few innings played in exhibitions against other teams. The exhibitions will become important only late in spring training as the starting pitching rotation and final 25-man roster become set.
The depth is excessive at some positions and will pose a problem when the final cutdown comes. For example, the Mariners have four players who basically are first basemen: Justin Smoak, Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez — the latter three picked up over the winter. Smoak, so far, has shown the same success that he did last September. If he can sustain it, he will be the starter. Morales, like Smoak a switch hitter, will be the designated hitter. Morse, right now, is penciled in for a corner outfield spot, although he is not much of a fielder. Ibanez would be a spot player and pinch hitter but without a chance to play many innings, barring someone else's injury.
The logjam at first base/designated hitter has spilled over into outfield roster decisions. Morse and Michael Saunders are the presumptive corner outfielders, flanking center-fielder Franklin Gutierrez, looking good after illness and injury in the past two seasons. Former slugger Jason Bay is competing for a spot against Casper Wells, a solid all-around outfielder and player; Eric Thames, and the perennial hopeful Carlos Peguero. Bay and Wells, both right-hand hitters, lead that group but there likely will be room for only one of them when the season opens.
The starting infield is set with Smoak/Morales, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Brendan Ryan. Robert Andino, acquired from Baltimore, is a competent backup. Right now, the catchers will be Jesus Montero and veteran Kelly Shoppach. Montero's future, though, probably lies at first base or designated hitter, further adding to the logjam at those positions. Mike Zunino, last year's No. 1 draft choice, has looked good during camp and could be the starting catcher as soon as this July. He is a natural leader, good receiver, solid hitter and all-around "gamer" (the term for those who compete and play hard every day). A cornerstone player.
The greatest depth is in pitching, where Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and lefty Joe Saunders will be the first three in the starting rotation. There are no fewer than a half-dozen pitchers competing for slots No. 4 and 5. I give the edge right now to Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beaven, both in last year's rotation, but would not be surprised if rookies Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton or Brandon Maurer displaced one of them. Veterans Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman also are in camp to compete for starting jobs. Relief pitching also is strong and deep.
That's a good team, if overloaded with first-base/DH types. But, after the hitting drought of recent seasons, having too many hitters competing for positions is a good thing.
If you've not been to spring training, I commend it to you. In these early spring days, optimism reigns in the fresh morning workouts and players are hustling to impress Wedge and his coaches.
The Seattle fans here are heavily weighted toward senior citizens and family groups. I watched two grandfathers playing catch with their grandsons Wednesday as they watched the Mariners working out in the background. Players are approachable and pleased to sign autographs. They often walk over to chat with fans they recognize. Not something that happens in the regular season.
I've got my own favorites here. I am rooting for Garland and Bonderman to keep their careers alive after injuries. Same for Bay, although I like Wells as well and would hate to see one cut if the other made the team. Ryan is a brilliant fielder at shortstop and a play-for-keeps competitor. Zunino is an old-school baseball player. Fans will love him when he gets to Safeco. He is a refuse-to-lose throwback.
In the past several seasons, I've hoped the Mariners could be competitive. This year I feel sure they will be.